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Ice cream trucks' old-time cool melts away

ST. PETERSBURG

The ice cream man pulls into the Shore Acres Center, blasting I'm a Little Teapot as a line of cars waits to pass him. A blond lifeguard in a lavender swimsuit walks up to the truck. "Okay," she says, as if finally settling a long dispute. "Four blue and two orange." Bill Watterson leans into a freezer and scrapes flavored ice into perfect domes. He garnishes the slushees with plastic spoons. The macaroni-and-cheese colored van shudders into the neighborhood. Watterson doesn't expect much out of the route.

His right hand switches between the clutch on the van and the dial on the music box; his clear blue eyes search for customers.

A decade ago, Watterson, 59, could hardly drive down these streets for all the stops. Children everywhere. Now, they're playing video games in the air conditioning. Enjoying their high-speed Internet. Eating treats from their own freezers. Dieting.

He turns down a street wondering if he's too early for Eddie, a favorite customer who naps until 4 p.m.

But here he comes, running across the lawn with some kind of liquid spilled down his shirt. "Hi!" says the round-faced boy who's brave around the ice cream man.

"Which one today?" Watterson asks, leaning down to face him. Eddie looks at the menu on the side of the van — eye level for a 2-year-old — with great concentration. "You want orange? You want SpongeBob today?" Watterson asks.

The boy points to the smiling yellow sea creature. Watterson sees behind the translucent menu where his finger lands.

He's seen Eddie grow, remembers asking his expecting mother, "When's that new customer going to show up?" and laughing when Eddie learned what sweetness his van brings.

Driving down a maze of nearly empty streets, Watterson passes three teenagers who turn up the bass to drown out his dinging.

A cardboard sign written in purple and pink marker reads, "Free Kittens." A smoky cat observes from the living room window, but no children appear.

Then, by an expansive shade tree, some boys are playing. Watterson parks the van in the cool shade of the branches.

With a dollar in each hand, Michael Colton, 9, looks at the faded pictures on the menu. "Is, um, the everyday Sunday cone actually blue?"

"No." Watterson understands that he's talking about flavor, not color. "It's vanilla ice cream."

"Can I have a blue slushee?"

Michael is playing with Rami Mari, 9, a neighbor he considers a kind of brother because they shared a slushee at age 5. They're trying to catch a squirrel and planning the next Lord of the Rings movie.

As Watterson drives off, the boys wave and dig in their spoons.

The suburban streets are spotted with overgrown lawns, and Watterson notices how many houses are for sale.

Watterson works seven days a week. On weekday mornings, he repairs wheelchairs and oxygen tanks at a medical supply company. He takes it easier on summer Sundays and visits just one neighborhood.

Today he's put $45 in his pocket, a pretty good haul. On his way home, where he lives alone, he'll fill up the gas tank. He figures he's used about $14 just driving the route.

But for now, the children are expecting him.

Three boys dance around the driveway when they hear him coming. One holds an upside-down dollar bill above his head.

Bailey Arnold, 7, and Brayden Arnold, 6, wear matching swimsuits. They're celebrating their friend Dallas Bialobrzeski's ninth birthday. They order a lick-a-color, a sour cyclone, and a cherry screwball, respectively.

As Watterson drives away, he flips the music box to play Happy Birthday.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Ice cream trucks' old-time cool melts away 09/08/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2008 5:46pm]

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